FAYETTEVILLE — For a fleeting instant Carson Shaddy, Jared Gates and Eric Cole became Arkansas’ Bermuda Triangle.
The Razorbacks second baseman, first baseman and right fielder were unable to catch the ninth-inning two-out, two-strike foul ball Wednesday night, landing amongst them.
If snagged by any, it would have won college baseball’s national championship, 3-2 for a two-game Arkansas sweep off the Razorbacks’ 4-1 Tuesday triumph in the best 2-of-3 College World Series, with the Oregon State Beavers at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
Instead a reprieved Beaver, Cadyn Grenier battling, tiring Razorbacks closer Matt Cronin, who was trying to close two saves in two nights, whacked the game-tying single, followed by Trevor Larnach’s two-run home run.
It proved the 5-3 difference Wednesday before OSU freshman Kevin Abel, Thursday, pitched a complete game two-hit, 5-0 masterpiece, seizing what once perched on the verge of Arkansas’ first baseball national championship brought home to Fayetteville that was instead yanked out west to Corvallis, Oregon for the third time in OSU history.
Among any pointing fingers, do not include Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn.
For not only does Van Horn know the Razorbacks don’t ever make it to Omaha without the season-long consistency at bat and a field by second baseman Shaddy and right fielder Cole and the late-season offensive and defensive surge by first baseman Gates.
Van Horn, the 1982 Razorbacks second baseman for retired coach Norm DeBriyn and DeBriyn’s coaching successor since 2003, knows from experience how difficult it would have been for any to catch the foul fly with the three pursuing from three directions. They converged with Cole coming in, Gates coming out and Shaddy cutting across full speed.
“You almost had to be there to see how tough a play it was,” Van Horn said Friday upon returning to Fayetteville. “When it left the bat, I didn’t even know if they would get to it. I didn’t even know if it would get to the stands for not. With the way the wind was blowing, the crowd was extremely loud; they probably couldn’t hear each other very well, if at all. The ball kind of blew back a little bit. That’s why Carson overran it. He ran extremely hard.”
Shaddy had the longer way to run but still a better angle than Gates, in Van Horn’s view.
“Gates didn’t really have an opportunity to get to it,” Van Horn said. “You know in a perfect world, Cole would have been the one to get it. But he got a late break on it. He told me that. It’s just one of those things. If it had been an easy play, you would have been kind of thinking, ‘Why?’ But that was a very difficult play. That would have been an incredible catch if we had come up with that.”
Ultimately, coach Pat Casey’s Beavers won on great pitching, beating good pitching with the Beavers’ pitching so great they struck out what had been a great Arkansas hitting team 38 times in three games.
“We won the first game and didn’t do much,” Van Horn said. “We had one good inning (Arkansas scored all four runs in Tuesday’s fifth inning). The second game, kind of the same way. We were within one strike of winning the national championship. Baseball is a game of 27 outs, and we couldn’t finish it out. We couldn’t get that last out.
“We were trying to get out an All-American (Grenier)and a first-round draft choice (Larnach) and they had another one (CWS MVP catcher Adley Rutschman) right behind him in the order. There was no margin for any issues. I think Cronin gave us everything he had and just left one out over the plate a little bit.”
And Larnach hit it.
“Just got to give Oregon State credit,” Van Horn said. “Their lineup is the best we’ve faced all year offensively and we actually held them down. But, then you flip it there and their pitchers just did a great job against our hitters. And that’s the way it went.”
You can call it close but no cigar but Van Horn calls it a great year.
“They were a special group and they bonded early,” Van Horn said. “Just a good bunch of guys, high character guys that really cared about each other and knew what they were representing all along. Every day they stepped out here, they knew they were playing for the Razorbacks and it meant a lot to them.”